Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Plants and people, connected for life

July 9, 2016
Marie Narlock

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; —
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
— William Wordsworth

Sometimes the world truly does feel too much with us. When I look at the mayhem and environmental destruction occurring around the world, it saddens me that we don’t take better care of the Earth and each other. Wordsworth felt the industrial revolution was making people too preoccupied with the material world, and too detached from nature and the spiritual world. To him, the whir of the steam engine drowned out the breeze through the trees — and led people to forget how reliant we are on the Earth’s bounty.

Imagine what he’d think about the situation now!

It’s easy to lose heart and hope. But those of us living in Marin have a secret weapon: the natural beauty surrounding us. Mount Tamalpais stands as sentinel. Muir Woods redwoods rise up like watch towers. Our verdant and varied terrain wraps us in protective, soothing greenery.

This is how I find solace: by focusing on the innate good that nature provides, the contributions and discoveries that have occurred thanks to the world’s flora.

The list is long and noble. Let’s start with the biggies.

Were it not for plants, none of us would be here. Plants use energy from the sun to make food, the starting point of every food chain. Without plants there would be no animals and no people.

Oxygen, the essential life force, is kept in balance on the Earth due solely to plants. Plants consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis. In many cities around the world, plants help mitigate the noxious effects of air pollution. They also store much of the carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels. We know all too well that the balance is out of whack today, but I think it’s safe to say it’s not the plants’ fault. On the contrary, they’re working hard to be the lungs of our planet.

Every morsel of food we consume comes directly or indirectly from plants. Throughout history, we’ve used around 7,000 plants to put food on the table. Every slice of bread, cup of coffee and sprinkle of sugar ‘n’ spice is living proof that a plant was grown, cared for and harvested so that we could enjoy a meal.

Plants help distribute and purify the planet’s water supply, and lift water from the soil to the atmosphere so that our water cycle is uninterrupted. Because they have a cooling effect on the atmosphere, plants and trees play a part in rainfall. We need forests to keep the rain coming. (Ever wonder why there’s so little rain in the desert?) Water is yet another indispensable life force, sustaining our thirst, cleaning our environment, and irrigating our crops.

Modern medicine depends on plants. Plants are the largest source of essential vitamins; the body cannot manufacture them on its own. Three out of four of the top prescription drugs in the U.S. started as plants, and 70 percent of new drugs in the past 25 years have been derived from natural sources. Everything from headaches to cancer is treated by an antidote growing out of the earth. The willow provides aspirin, and foxglove gives up her leaves to treat heart conditions. Plant-derived cancer drugs save 30,000 lives every year.

Every habitat on Earth relies on plants. Every form of wildlife — insects to humans — is dependent on plants for food and shelter. From our homes to our back porches, it’s plants that provide the infrastructure for human survival and comfort. Every T-shirt, rocking chair and hope chest started out as a sprout. Every book. Every blanket.

The next time you flip on the TV and feel accosted by the news, take a page from Wordsworth’s playbook and go outside. Hike Abbott’s Lagoon, start an herb garden, plant an oak tree. You will be deepening your connection to the Earth’s magnificent plant life, which will benefit you in ways that may surprise you.

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